Over the last week, I mentioned on a social media site that I thought both the Democratic Party and the Republican party were venal and self-serving, evil.
A well-meaning acquaintance from waaaaaay back took it upon themselves to warn me away from such statements, and took issue with a number of actions undergone by the GOP as proof that they were evil… and since the Democrats were not doing those same things, clearly the Democrats were… apparently less evil.
They were rather unclear on the actual results of the Democrats’ inactivity; they didn’t actually say “less evil,” or even “good,” it was just about Republican activity. They took the conversation to private messages (direct messages, or DMs), which was … probably a good thing, but it was also vastly amusing.
That message chain was over 380 messages long. They wrote 286 of them. It was a work of art, really, and utterly unconvincing for some pretty simple reasons, few related to their actual assertions. (This is why it was amusing to me.)
It was a rhetorical masterpiece, manipulative from the very beginning, and clearly so, whether they intended it to be or not. I don’t know how self-aware my acquaintance is, but if they were trying to say “members of my tribe are definitely not evil,” and they expected to be representative, I think it’s safe to say that they actually more or less validated my original assertion without meaning to.
Here’s the thing, though: I don’t know if they were trying to assert that they were representative. Nor do I know if they had any curiosity about how evil I thought the parties were, or what I thought about individual members of the various political parties, because at no point did they bother to indulge any curiosity about what I meant.
(This was also amusing to me, because I’ve written clearly about how I see the parties and how I see the parties’ members, and at one point they said they actually were aware of my public stances, even though the entire lecture was predicated on an assumption that my public stances were … not what I actually think at all.)
The “taking it to direct message” was a smart move on their part, because posting a lecture on social media – even if it weren’t piecemeal like DMs are – makes one look arrogant, and DMs allow a tone that a generalized lecture does not. Also, taking it to DM allows manipulation through familiarity (“remember when…”) that public messages do not. Privacy also prevents observation and public correction; when a hundred people see a statement made in error, one of those hundred might observe the error publicly… and call it out.
It also implies that the one being corrected (me, in this case) is being protected by the lecturer (“I’m keeping your shame in the shadows, not calling you out publicly”) and that carries with it an assumption of shame.
I remember this person; I don’t know that we’re friends, exactly, as we’ve had no conversations of any depth whatsoever for the past … probably decade or so. If we have had conversations, I don’t remember them.
This actual unfamiliarity coupled an assumption of insight was the cause of the first error they made, actually, because I don’t consider them to have any actual insight into my thought processes or motivations, and they were literally trying to speak to those thought processes. (And that’s despite me writing publicly for decades now. I may not publish on a consistent basis, but I still publish, and the Internet doesn’t forget. My stances have changed over time, but I’ve tried to be honest about that, too, including acknowledgement of ideas and views I think were in error and hopefully out of ignorance. Ideas like… “the Democrats might actually be the good guys.”)
If my brother, who knows me well, had said the exact same words, they’d have carried an impact, because my brother does know how I think, and why, and he has access to an authority in my life that randoms from the Internet do not.
Of course, the randoms from the Internet could always… ask. I like to think that’s what I’d have done, had I chosen to correct someone on the Internet: find out if they’re actually wrong, first, you know? After all, this was initiated on social media, a medium that has as a primary flaw a … lack of representation of nuance. As people are rarely without nuance in their actual lives (regardless of how they appear on social media), you’d think the first thing would be to isolate what is actually being thought before setting phasers on “kill”… at least, if the lecturer has any social awareness themselves.
The lecturer started off with a long string of messages (short ones, and they were sent before I realized I even had any direct messages, as I don’t lurk on social media sites very much) where not only was my expertise questioned (“people like you rarely know as much about unrelated subjects as you think you do”) but my motivations questioned (“people who say such simple things are overly certain without cause” and “people are willing to undertake extreme actions”) and an explicit disassociation (“I’m no longer following you”).
(These are not quotes. I’m not likely to quote my lecturer here except by accident. Some of the words may be the same, but I’m not copying and pasting anything. All quotes should be assumed to be paraphrases filtered through my own lenses. I do have the entire conversation logged, because it was hilarious, but still: I’m going to avoid identifying the lecturer if I can.)
They also claimed specific expertise: they had multiple degrees and their parents were college professors, you know. So they knew. People with certitude could be dangerous, and my assertion exposed certitude. (You might even say the lecturer was certain. That is, if you thought things like that were funny, like I do.)
That brings up another rhetorical trick they used, actually.
I like words. I read quite a bit; I don’t know if I read more than the average bear or not, because I don’t know how much other people read quantitatively, but I think it’s safe to say that I read a lot. I believe most of the people who know me would agree with that statement. (I don’t read the most out of my circle of friends, I think; I know someone who I think reads more than I, for example, but I think even they would say that I’m pretty well-read.)
I read things in many genres. I read nonfiction and fiction. In nonfiction, I’ll cover history, philosophy, math, programming, music, science, the mechanics of writing (most books on writing are not written especially well, go figure!); in fiction, it could be anything: mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction, science fiction, horror. These are representative, not limiting. I’ll read almost anything I find interesting if I can.
The result is that my language is … broad. I read a lot of words, and words I like will enter into my lexicon. (Words like “lexicon,” for example.) When I write, I try to use words that are clear enough, I guess, but I’m often writing as myself and therefore, especially as I warm up, I use words that are more natural for me to use and retain my voice, as opposed to restricting myself to a simple set of 1000 words like Randall Munroe’s “Thing Explainer” book.
I could restrict my vocabulary more than I do, I suppose, and when writing for specific purposes I do, but in private messages where my conversational partner assumes familiarity? I’m more likely to use the language that occurs to me innately than I would otherwise.
My lecturer took exception to this. I used a word whose meaning I thought would be fairly clear from usage, and not only did they go pedantic on me (“that is not what that word means, specifically”) but they declared that I sounded like a self-educated high-schooler, along with a specific term that I’m sure was supposed to be an insult.
Oddly enough, I am a self-educated high schooler. My comment to that, written through laughter (because it was funny!), was that I had me a high school diploma lying about somewhere, if I could only find it… (It’s also been recorded as an actual fact that insulting the person you’re trying to convince is very effective. It worked for Trump, right? I’m pretty sure my lecturer would have gone ballistic at having such a equivalence pointed out.)
But notice what’s happening, rhetorically: they were trying to use my very language against me. They didn’t ask what I meant (even though I thought it was clear through usage); any attempt to clarify was met with disdain for the term.
And it goes on! One of the other rhetorical manipulations they used was simple entrapment through falsification. They started off (in public) enumerating a number of sins of the GOP, sins that … honestly, probably are sins. (They were presented without specificity, and in very coarse terms, were probably accurate; it’s when you drill down that you find that there might be some justifications for those particular sins. Note the use of the word “might.”)
I didn’t bother addressing those. Why would I?
I was making an assertion of venality on the parts of both major parties, after all; if someone presents evidence (even lacking nuance) that validates that at least half of my assertion was true, why would I disagree? They were saying that I was right, after all.
Of course, they took issue with my statement that it was both parties and not just one, making it an attack on the blue tribe as well as the red tribe, and there was the source of the offense. How dare I say the blue tribe is bad, too?
So in the lecture they presented a number of grave acts on the part of the GOP, and challenged me to dispute them, saying to tell them anything the Democrats had done that was “as awful as” this, or that, or the other.
I did not dispute the acts themselves. I could have; those descriptions lacked nuance, after all. And they didn’t take place in a vacuum, and what’s more, if the Democrats had wanted to do some of them, they would have (and they’ve tried, in some cases. But they failed, so they “didn’t do them.”)
But … disputing them would have been both a strategic and tactical mistake, on multiple levels.
For one thing, strategically, those terrible things agreed with my assertion that the GOP is evil and stupid. Disputing them defends a party I do not want to defend.
For another, tactically, disputation gives a falsifiable angle of attack; there are a lot of rhetorical ways to address such disputations. You could go for precision (“You said this happened in January 1995, when ACTUALLY it happened in early February, you don’t know what you’re talking about”) or widen the scope of the disputation to incorporate external facts (“Well, you’re failing to account for von Moltke in 1887, who …”)
Lastly, it’s a strategic error about intent. I had stated early in the lecture (when I had finally started paying attention to it and interacting) that I had no intent of trying to convince anyone of anything, that my lecturer should feel and think what… you know, they felt and thought. My permission wasn’t necessary, nor was my approval, but I wholly feel that people should be who they are. I was making a statement about my own feelings, after all, and I didn’t mind what anyone else thought. I’ve said so publicly and in many forums.
If you think I’m trying to convince you to think what I think, you’re missing something very simple about me: I’m happy to influence people positively, I guess, but it’s a passive influence. If you think what I think because of something I said, it’s because you read something from me and thought – to yourself and for yourself – hey, he might be right.
I try really hard to not decide things for other people. I don’t even tell my kids what is right to think; I tell them what I think and why, and if they find that compelling, we agree. If they don’t, we disagree, and everything’s fine between us; if they tell me what they think and why, well, maybe I’ll change my mind. (I’ve changed my mind and behavior inspired by arguments from my kids multiple times. I’m proud of them.)
So… for me to dispute these claims about the GOP… what would it serve? I’m not trying to tell my lecturer that they’re wrong, after all; if they don’t realize their own contextual errors, well, who am I to correct them? And that their error reinforces my own decision – I think their assertions lacked nuance, but the result was the same, after all – well, that only makes a disputation stupid.
I may not be the sharpest light bulb in the shed, but I ain’t outright dumb. When my “opponent” makes my point for me, I will let them.
But the request was to show what the Democrats had done that was “as evil as” those acts, which were mostly focused on legislative actions to counteract Democratic motivations.
That, too, was really pretty elegant on the part of the lecturer. Note what they’re doing: they’re ascribing a generalization to all Republicans.
It’s like saying “All Republicans are racist” because some Republicans are racist. (After all, the non-racist Republicans – were they a thing – would surely eject their racist brethren, right?)
But that’s not the way the world works, on any level, and actually indirectly ties into why I think the Democrats are venal and stupid, too.
It’s worth pointing out that neither party is monolithic. I know a lot of people in both parties, and members of both constitute my “inner circle,” people I do listen to with great intent. I think they’re good people, even when they agree with the things their parties do with which I disagree. I understand these people, and why they agree with the things I find wrong. This is important. I know them, they know me, we respect each other, we can dialogue in good faith and we know it. The parties are evil. It doesn’t mean that the people who make up the parties are evil, individually, although they might be. This is something my lecturer seemed to fail to understand, based on what they said to me.
I used the word “racist” a few paragraphs ago, right? … what does that word mean? It has a technical meaning, I guess, but applying it technically to anyone will lead to a conclusion that all people are racist, and if all people are racist, this deserves a reaction, and any racist’s assertions should be discounted.
But “any racist’s assertions should be discounted” is an assertion. And if all people are racist, well, that implies that the person who says that is also racist, and therefore that assertion too should be discounted. Taken to an extreme, the implication is that mankind is beyond redemption, that any person can be attacked for any reason (at the very least, you could accuse them of being racist, and they could deny it; but wouldn’t a denial be exactly what a racist would offer?)
It’s a black hole of suckitude. (It also lacks nuance. It’s why I can know people who I think actually are racist, without deciding to excommunicate and cancel them without reprieve.) And one of my greatest problems with the Democratic Party as a whole is this whole leaning into a failure of terminology and nuance. For a Party as a whole to lean into being unable to assert what a woman is… that’s awful. You can carve out specifics all you like, but to be unable to generalize? There’s a rot in that oak, and it needs to be chopped down and burned.
And words matter. If you can’t use words, you can’t discuss. If I say “the GOP is evil” and you change what the understanding of “evil” is to suit your purposes, I lose the ability to talk about the GOP being evil. (Does the new definition even mean that I think the GOP is evil?) We can’t come to a meeting of the minds, because that requires an ability to establish a common ground, and if you change the meaning of words, there is no common ground. You’ve built a wall between every human, that you can erect at will.
That’s a dominance game, and it’s insidious and explicit, and it is what I consider to be evil, and yes, I do consider it to be worse than most of the short-sighted things the GOP does. The GOP can be countered by an electoral cycle (and a lot of education about rational thought.) The destruction of the ability to teach rational thought (“what does that even mean? Let’s change it”) … that’s something that requires burning down a culture and rebuilding it.
I think that is evil, and a great evil, at that, maybe even the greatest. It provides a mechanism to invalidate the ability to do good. And my lecturer never once asked me about what I meant when I referred to it. They didn’t care. They had an axe to grind, and they were a-grindin’.
After a while, the conversation ended, with them asking me to stop messaging them (remember, they messaged me initially), and I accepted that request. That was around message number 330 or so. They then sent nearly seventy more messages to me, reprimanding me for writing as I do, for thinking as I do, adding a few other rhetorical manipulations (“I told someone something positive about you, and you didn’t know about it, how could you not be overwhelmingly grateful for something you didn’t know about?”) along the way.
I remain unconvinced. If I really, really cared about what a casual acquaintance thought about me, specifically, and assigned power to their perception, I might have been swayed, but given that there was no exchange, no consideration for anything I thought or said, it ended up being funny to read – and in some ways, it might have convinced me that my original assertion (that both major parties were evil, and that one party’s evil was more difficult to address than the other’s) was even more true than I thought it was.